Cannes Review: 'Sicario' is a Fascinating Commentary on Violence
by Marco Cerritos
May 24, 2015
Reporting from the Cannes Film Festival. Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve is quickly becoming a crucial voice in cinema, crafting human stories of immense power and durability. His one-two-three punch of Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy has been enough to get him noticed in film-savvy circles, but his latest film Sicario may be his best work to date. It's a bleak drug-trade thriller on the surface but deep down it's really a dense character study with comments on the violence in this modern world. It's in the same ballpark as other modern commentaries like Traffic and Zero Dark Thirty but with its own unique flavor.
Emily Blunt dominates the film as Kate Macer, an FBI agent with a tough exterior in a male dominated field. When we're first introduced to her she's just discovered a gruesome find tied to a major drug cartel operating on both sides of the U.S.A./Mexico border. Hungry for a new assignment, she uses this as an opportunity to pair up with the enigmatic Matt Graver (played by Josh Brolin) to take down the dangerous cartel. Even though they're technically on the same side, it's obvious from their initial meeting that Matt's not to be fully trusted. He deliberately hides crucial information from Kate and also introduces the group to the equally mysterious Alejandro (played by Benicio Del Toro), a cartel hitman who has plans of his own.
We're told early that "sicario" is cartel slang for hitman and while Alejandro definitely fits that description, the title could also apply to many of the film's characters. This is a movie where everyone operates in a shade of grey and while the film's plot may be dense it's also easy to follow if you're paying attention. Kate is our protagonist and she may start out as a rookie but by the final act things will be very different for her. That kind of character transition isn't easy to sell in a two-hour movie but Blunt is more than up to the challenge. She does more with a simple stare than most actors do with an entire performance, completely reflecting her character's tough edge. Equally effective are Del Toro and Brolin whose characters are also drenched in ambiguity, giving the film and its politics no easy answers. In fact, for Del Toro this is really the first time since Traffic that he's been let loose and allowed to get lost in a performance. I know he also played a cartel enforcer in Savages recently but that performance is a complete 180 from his work here.
Sicario is not the disposable and mainstream crime thriller most might expect but something much greater and profound. Villeneuve uses his camera in interesting ways and creates tension from unexpected places, whether it's a tight close-up or a traffic jam. Once again pairing with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sicario looks amazing and pops off the screen with bright colors and seedy locales. All of this along with the aforementioned lead performances not only make Sicario one of the top selections at the Cannes Film Festival, but also one of the best films of the year period.
Marco's Cannes 2015 Rating: A
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